Seventeenth and eighteenth century art in Europe underwent significant changes as a result of shifts in economy, ideas about the function of the arts and the artists, and taste in art. While the changes were significant, as we examine the different social, economic, and aesthetic roles of the arts during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we find that the changes in Fine Arts and the idea of the artist as more than creating to serve a function will not be fully recognized until the nineteenth century. These changes come together through the idea of taste in art and appreciation for the artists as an individual and not an extension of the market.
We will start by examining the effects of society in the seventeenth and eighteenth century on the arts and the artists. The effects that society plays on the arts during the seventeenth and eighteenth century are divided into religion, political, and educational. The roles of each of these while individual are not completely separated, but work together in some aspects that will affect the role of the artists and will bring about some of the changes we will examine in the economic and aesthetic roles on the arts as well.
While politics would play a role on the arts between the seventeenth and eighteenth century, political rulers tended to follow many of the churches ideas of the role of art and the artists during this time. The seventeenth century was dominated mostly by the counter reform in religion and political ideas in Europe, when it came to the arts (www.theotherside.co.uk). Artists who did not find favor with the patrons, church or court were unable to support their work, but artists like Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664) were able to create through the support of patrons. Even more so was Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez (1599-1606) who would find favor and become court painter to Phillip IV. He would not only be able to support his work, but also travel to Italy where he would learn other painting techniques that would add to his artistic style (Bazin 59; http://www.britannica.com).
Much like Velazquez in the south, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) in the north would gain recognition and patronage for his work but with a slight difference. While Velazquez would paint primarily for the court of Phillip IV, Rubens would open a large studio where he would be able to take on patronage from many art connoisseurs, as well as the ability to sell to the market (www.peterpaulrubens.org).The idea of an art market was something that was brought about by the Dutch, were artists could sell their works like other crafts of the time. Though both of these artists would gain great recognition for their works, they would still find themselves, as did many other artists of the seventeenth century, caught in the idea of artists as little more than workers in a shop producing for the consumer (Shiner 57-129).
The social ideas of art would begin to form at the end of the seventeenth century with the forming of art academies, but it would not be until the further development of Academies of Art and the greater appreciation for individual taste in art during the eighteenth century that we start to see the idea of the individual artists as we have come to know them today. The introduction of Academies allows for a deeper understanding of the differences in artist and artisan, as artists would gain more freedom and artisans were more restricted by rules. The academies also developed exhibits for the artists allowing them to show their individuality and even sell work at the exhibits and not be held down with waiting for commissions (Shiner 57-129). With these changes in the ideas of the status of the artists and art in general also came a difference in the economic status of the arts and the artists.
As there was a social change on the arts during this time so were there changes on the effects of the economy in the seventeenth and eighteenth century on the arts and the artists. Economics has a two-fold effect on the arts and artists during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the first being the ability for more people to afford art, the other being the artists ability to transition from working for a single patron or group to being about to sell their work on the market or in exhibits.
During the first part of the seventeenth century artist primarily worked for a patron or if they were skilled enough would become court painters or work for an individual patron who would support them and their work. Depending on their relationship with the patron or their level of acceptance artists during this time were paid in one of two ways. If they worked by individual commissions they were normally paid for the cost of the materials, the amount of time it took to complete the work, the difficulty of the work, and what the work was being used for. If the artist was fortunate enough like Velazquez they would be paid a monthly payment by their patron besides their fees for commissioned work (Shiner 57-129).
As the Dutch introduced the art market, artists like Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Vermeer (1632-1675) were able to sell their work not just through commissions but also to the public in general. While many of the master artists may not have sold so much to the market, it did give a chance for artist who were not so well known and apprentices to sell their work to make money to support their art. Part of the reason for the introduction of the art market was the Dutch society as a whole had more money to spend and enjoyed using it to decorate their homes. (www.essentialvermeer.com)
During the eighteenth century this idea of a capitalistic market continued to grow not just in business but also in the area of art. With the continued growth of academies and the distinction between artist and artisan became clearer artists were able to sell their work based on their reputation and their creative abilities (Shiner 57-129). As more people were able to buy art they also could be choosier in the kind of art they wanted to buy.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth century as the social and economic roles of art changes so do the taste of art. These changes come in the idea of the artist being freer to create beyond the demands of the patron and the understanding and appreciation for art at the different levels of the market, but even though we see the ideas of modern art developing the overall ideal of visual beauty is still very important in the arts (Shiner 57-129). While we start to see this idea of taste in art, the idea of taste tends towards classical themes for the most part.
The appreciation of early Italian Renaissance art and the training of great artists like Velazquez, Rubens, as well as the introduction of early Italian art into Spain through artists like El Greco (1541-1614) built a strong sense of classical work in the early seventeenth century. With the introduction of the art market in the second half of the seventeenth century and societies’ ability to buy more art artists move more towards more subtle works of art, but still held on to classical appeal for the most part. We can see these ideas in works of Vermeer’s work, who painted mostly senses of middle class life, The Milk Maid (1658-1661). While Vermeer did not create a lot of work during this time, it was believed that his paintings were bought to decorate homes or businesses during the time (www.essentialvermeer.com).
During the eighteenth century with the growth of academies and the change in society we start to see a trend of the individual artist, but this trend continues to be strongly influenced by classical themes. Even with the social and economic changes going on during this time, many of the great masters who would be instructors at the academies would be trained in the classical styles and would pass these lessons on to their students who would continue to add these classical themes even in new styles and techniques. We can see examples in the works of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696 – 1770). His work The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (1722), Education of the Virgin (1732) and The Beheading of John the Baptist (1732-33) are clear examples of classical themes painted in the Rococo style of art during the eighteenth century (www.britannica.com).
As we looked at the social changes and economic growth during the seventeenth and eighteenth century in Europe we note that while bringing more freedom to the idea of art and artists it would have little effect on the classical appeal to art during this period. While the social changes allowed artists to move from the patronage system of supporting art to the more open ability to sell in an open market, and the economic growth gave artists the ability to make more money and support more of their own art without the need of patrons, there was still a desire for classical themes and style of paintings in much of Europe during this time. It would not be until the middle of the nineteenth century that the full appreciation of the artist as an individual and art in the modern view of today would be realized.
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